Cats Complete 3-Peat (Lacrosse)

Wade Askew

By Wade AskewThe Daily Northwestern

PHILADELPHIA – Northwestern won its third straight women’s lacrosse national championship Sunday.

In the Wildcats’ closest contest since a season-opening 9-8 overtime loss to North Carolina, NU defeated third-seeded Virginia 15-13. NU is just the second team in NCAA history to complete a women’s lacrosse three-peat, with Maryland’s title run from 1995-2001 being the only precedent.

Virginia (19-4) struck first, jumping out to a 2-0 lead just 1:30 into the contest. But NU (21-1) responded as Hannah Nielsen dished an NCAA record-tying 66th assist of the year to sophomore Meredith Frank to put the Wildcats on the board and ignite a 7-0 run. Nielsen would go on to break the record with four assists on the day.

Three minutes later, senior Kristen Kjellman hit her own milestone with her 250th career goal, making her just the seventh player in history to reach the plateau. In NU’s semifinal game against the University of Pennsylvania on Friday, Kjellman set a NCAA record for career goals in the tournament, breaking Jen Adam’s mark of 37 (Maryland, 1998-2001).

But the accomplishments of Nielsen and Kjellman would be overshadowed by the game itself. Really, the two unselfish stars would have it no other way.

Seven different players scored for NU, but sophomore Hilary Bowen and freshman Katrina Dowd stole the show.

Bowen scored four first-half goals to carry the Cats to an 11-6 halftime lead. She finished the game with five goals and two assists, earning her the game’s Most Outstanding Player and tournament’s Most Valuable Player awards.

Bowen took advantage of Virginia’s man defense, scoring four of her goals on unassisted dodges. She ignited the relatively small but loyal NU contingent amongst the championship-record 6,075 fans in attendance, hopping up and down after each goal into the embrace of the closest teammate.

By halftime, Virginia coach Julie Myers said she knew she had to make an adjustment on the quick Bowen, so she put senior Jessy Morgan on the sophomore attacker and slid early on all of her dodges. Morgan started the game on Nielsen, but with Bowen’s first-half dominance Myers switched Morgan with sophomore defender Jen Holden, who finished the game guarding Nielsen.

The switch paid dividends, as the Cavaliers held NU to just four second-half goals. Virginia mounted a swift comeback in the second half, scoring four of the first five goals by the 21:44 mark.

NU knew Virginia would not go away easily after seeing the team’s record comeback in the semifinals against Duke, when the Cavaliers overcame a 13-4 second-half deficit to win 14-13. Still, they hoped they could prevent the game from quickly becoming so close.

“Until you get in that situation, it’s hard to actually think about (Virginia coming back like it did against Duke),” Kjellman said. “You always hope that it won’t even come to that point. But once they came back up a little bit, we knew what we had to do.”

The run cut NU’s lead to 12-11. Immediately after Virginia’s 11th goal a media timeout was called, during which both NU and Virginia fans chanted for their teams. Throughout most of the game, when Virginia’s faithful began cheering, the purple in attendance did their best to combat the noise.

Kjellman won the draw coming out of the timeout, and the Cats did not waste much time to kill Virgina’s momentum, as Nielsen assisted Frank for the second time.

For the rest of the game, NU and Virginia would trade punches – Virginia never tied the contest but never fell behind by more than two goals. The game was a tale of two halves, the second of which NU did everything simply to survive.

With just fewer than 10 minutes remaining in the second half, the Cats simply held the ball behind the net for roughly three minutes. First, Nielsen held the ball as the rest of the NU offense faked cuts 15 yards in front of the goal. Later, Nielsen and Bowen switched positions with the latter standing stationary as the Virginia crowd grew increasingly restless.

NU coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said the move was a necessary one given the fact that Virginia was “scoring at will” in the second half. While the Virginia faithful certainly resented the move, greeting it with a chorus of boos, Myers called the strategy a smart one.

“That was a great delay on their part, to put one really dominant player back behind who could take you on the crease right or left-handed while they put everybody up in the stack. I thought that was great,” Myers said. “We knew what they were doing, but the risk of going back and forcing a great crease challenge to come up and take that crease challenge, you’ve got a pretty good chance of going down yet another goal.”

Myers also hesitated to pressure Bowen and Nielsen during the delay because if NU scored, chances were it would get the ball back. The Cats held a 17-13 advantage in draw controls and dominated 9-3 in the second half.

NU survived the final five minutes of the game with its lopsided time of possession advantage as well as a clutch save by goalie Morgan Lathrop. With 3:20 remaining, Lathrop saved a one-on-one shot on the crease that would have tied the game at 14.

After Christy Finch cleared the ball to the offensive end but coughed up a ground ball, one of the game’s defining moments took place. Dowd, the freshman from Yorktown, N.Y., came up with the ball and was promptly fouled.

On the restart, she quickly passed the ball to Nielsen, who was standing on the right wing, and cut to the goal. Nielsen tossed it back to Dowd, who netted her third goal of the game, giving NU a 15-13 lead with 2:29 on the clock. After another NU draw control, Virginia was not able to get another shot at Lathrop and the NU defense.

Dowd’s hat trick was nothing short of astounding seeing as the freshman had scored just 14 goals total going into the championship. The freshman said the veterans on the team encouraged her to stay aggressive despite the nerves that came with the game.

It also helped that Dowd got off a shot just five minutes into the game, even though that attempt was stuffed.

“Being a freshman going into a national championship game, obviously (I was) nervous, and just to get my first shot early out of the way, I know I settled it down,” Dowd said. “I got advice from the other players who said ‘Throw a fake and drive it low,’ and next time I got the ball, I did just that.”

Dowd’s effort was but a microcosm of NU’s season. It was one that had stars, no doubt, but thrived because of a variety of significant contributions. Whether big plays came from Nielsen, Kjellman, Frank, senior Aly Josephs, or Bowen and Dowd, as was the case in the title game, different players continually stepped up for the Cats throughout the year. It also didn’t hurt that All-Region players Finch, Lindsay Finocchiaro and Lathrop anchored the nation’s top defense.

It is the team’s diverse production that Amonte Hiller said sets this team apart from the past two championship squads.

“Every one is different. This is a different team than the one in 2006 and 2005,” Amonte Hiller said. “I had a feeling it was going to be hard-fought. When you have won it before, people are gunning for you. Virginia did everything right and they were amazing offensively. We did a great job of keeping possession. At the end of that game, it was just looking for individuals to step up. That’s been our marquee, is that we’ve had individuals step up all the time, and I think we did that.”

But in the end, whether if it was the seven different goal-scorers, the draw controls, or the play of Bowen and Dowd that put NU over the top in the title game is irrelevant.

All that matters is that NU officially has its very own dynasty.

Reach Wade Askew at [email protected]